(I wrote this feature during my recent short-lived stint as an editor for Fine Lifestyles magazines. It was supposed to be the cover story for Fine Lifestyles Yorkton, but I can’t see any sign Fine Lifestyles Yorkton made it off the ground. It did run in Business Saskatoon.)
Dave Rodney has twice stood atop Mt. Everest, the first Canadian to do so more than once. International keynote speaker, documentary producer, author, adventure guide, educator and humanitarian, he was recently re-elected for a third term as MLA for the constituency of Calgary-Lougheed, and named Associate Minister of Health for the province of Alberta.
And it all started in Yorkton.
Born in Mankota, Rodney was in Grade 1 at St. Paul’s Elementary School in Yorkton when he admired a painting his grandfather had of an alpine scene, wondering what the world would look like from the top of one of those mountains. That wonder planted a seed that would bear fruit on Mt. Everest three decades later. In Grade 5, Rodney’s class went skiing—and Rodney discovered something else he liked about alpine life.
But school days in Yorkton sparked more than just an interest in mountain climbing. He remembers his Grade 9 English teacher asking, “Who will write a book? Who will make a film? Who will become a politician?” Rodney found himself raising his hand several times over. And his Grade 10 social studies teacher impressed him with the comment that “government, when done well, is one of the most important ways to effect social change.”
“We had incredible educators and role models at SHHS,” Rodney recalls. “We were taught about finding out what our mission, our vocation, our calling in life truly is—and to determine what skills and expertise are required, then go out and get them.”
Teaching and climbing
Rodney considered both law and medicine, but wasn’t convinced either was his true calling. From a former vice-principal he sought the name of the headmaster of a school in the West Indies that the Sacred Heart student council had raised money for, and at the ripe old age of 20 spent a year working full-time as an educator on St. Vincent Island. “Living in a postcard,” with a fulltime job, Rodney realized “the world really is your oyster”—provided you work to make it so.
Returning home, he obtained his B.A. and B.Ed. from the University of Saskatchewan, then moved to Calgary as an educator. Over the next few years he taught at several different kinds of schools. “And all this time I was climbing mountains.”
His twin skills of teaching and mountaineering came together perfectly in 1997. A Canadian software group wanted to be involved with a joint Canadian/American Everest expedition, and the climbers realized they needed someone who knew both education and climbing. They called Rodney.
“I was on sabbatical, and since I finished my classes early, I had enough time left over to go on an Everest expedition (which takes three months). I had just climbed the highest mountain in the world outside the Himalayas [Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina], so I was acclimatized.”
Rodney created a new interactive website, Adventure Everest Online, “the first of its kind in the world, copied every year since—which I choose to take as a compliment, rather than as form of copyright infringement,” he says with a laugh.
He created a curriculum offering a lesson a day for Grades 1 to 12, posted a daily expedition update, and corresponded with students from around the world.
“What that experience showed me was that even though I was only a support team member, it wasn’t an impossibility for a person like me to assemble the right type of team and end up on top of the world.”
First Saskatchewanian on Everest
Two years later, he did just that, finding investors to finance an expedition that made him the first—and so far the only—Saskatchewan person to summit Mt. Everest. (He jokes that it’s not all that different from the prairies. “In the wintertime around here it can easily be forty below with howling winds, plus snow and ice. Bend it vertical, and that’s Mt. Everest!”)
He adds, however, that you’d also have to suck out two thirds of the air, multiply the ultraviolet radiation by 10, and throw in rock falls, avalanches, three-kilometer vertical drops, and many forms of altitude illness. Everest can kill you in many different ways, he says, and one member of his 1999 expedition, Michael Matthews, did not return from the mountain.
It’s a grim reminder that there is still nothing commonplace about climbing the world’s highest peak. “Of every 11 people who attempt it, only one gets to the top,” Rodney notes; when he climbed it, there was one death for every five summiteers. But in 2001 he reached the summit a second time, the first Canadian to do so.
Rodney parlayed his Everest success into professional speaking engagements around the world, as well as books, documentaries, and international adventure guiding. On treks to the Mt. Everest base camp, he’d thank his Sherpa friends for helping him achieve his dream, and ask them about theirs. Reserved and polite, they wouldn’t answer; but as he returned year after year he earned their trust (along with the nickname “Sherpa Dave”).
They told him they dreamed of their children being able to get other kinds of jobs than as climbing Sherpas or helping people on treks. In response, Rodney started the Top of the World Society for Children. “For over a decade now we’ve been sending Sherpa kids to school and to post-secondary education,” Rodney says. “The Sherpas have made a huge positive difference in my life. I hope that we’ve been able to give back a little bit through our foundation.”
Giving back is also the motivation for Rodney’s tackling of a metaphorical mountain, Alberta provincial politics. “I was strongly encouraged by all sorts of people—educator friends, community leaders, audience members who had heard me speak—to run. I was told I’d be supported if I ran for mayor or as an MP, but I thought I could contribute most to the ministries of provincial jurisdiction.”
When a seat opened up in southwest Calgary, a former MLA asked Rodney if he’d consider running to fill it. He won the nomination, and then the election. He’s been re-elected twice since. “It is such a thrill to help individual constituents every day with whatever their issues happen to be, whether they’re students, seniors or anyone in between,” says Rodney.
He’s “humbled and proud” that he’s had more private member bills passed than any other MLA in his time. He’s particularly proud of The Smoke Free Places Act, the Physical Activity Income Tax Amendment Credit, and the April Alberta Get Outdoors (GO) Weekend—which reminds people that “after a long cold winter, the middle of April is a perfect time to get outside and go for a walk, golf, ski, visit the farm, or adventure in our forests and on our waterways.”
As the newly minted Associate Minister of Health, says Rodney, “It is my honor, obligation, and duty to create the environment in which it is more attractive and easier for people to do what’s best for them. What I want to do is work with all sorts of groups across the province to encourage individuals to choose what is best for their physical and mental health.”
But the most important thing in his life is his family. He and his wife, Jennifer, have two children: Dawson, four, and Evan, two (and a puppy named MacGyver). “I want to be the best husband and father I can possibly be.”
From the flatlands of the prairies to the top of the world, from schoolteacher to mountaineer to MLA, Dave Rodney’s life has been an extraordinary journey.
But, he says, “I will forever treasure the fact that I was raised Yorkton, Saskatchewan. Some of the finest people on the planet live there, including my parents.”